Set against China’s bleak provincial wastelands, a 13-year-old boy receives a letter from his absent mother and sets off alone in search of her. Leaving his sister and grandfather behind, the boy follows the changing landscapes of the Yellow River. Alone and destitute, he bounces from child slave-labour in a brick factory to a coalmine forever eking out a poor existence. He soon runs away and joins a gang of young thieves and continues his search for his mother, even pushing his way through the inhabitants of an opium den. On his travels, the struggling boy glimpses occasionally a better world despite the many harsh realities of his life in this post-industrial age setting.